I heard the woman before I saw her.
“Get some chicken nuggets,” came a raspy female voice behind a clump of manzantia bushes that poorly hid a pop-up tent, a heaped shopping cart and a bearded man.
The man spoke softly and then ambled off, away from her, the campsite, out of the brush and in the direction of the strip mall and fast-food restaurants.
I called out hello and walked toward the tent, which was empty, but outside it, in the dirt, was an inflated double mattress covered with a tangle of thick plaid sleeping bags and blankets. The area held a stack of sooty rocks with an empty Chef Boyardee ravioli can perched on top. Strewn about the site where plastic shopping bags, cardboard fast-food boxes, AM-PM plastic cups, and two half-bottles of neon-colored soda. A chrome wheelchair was there, too, and in the dirt were the front and back heavy plastic forms of some kind a body brace, which I later learned belonged to the bearded guy.
I called out again, and the blankets moved. Tufts of mussed sandy-blond hair appeared, and then a tanned face. Eyes opened – menthol-candy blue – topped with long, pale lashes. The woman rubbed her eyes and stretched.
I asked if she was OK. She said yeah, she’d been sleeping – “just trying to get by”.
I apologized for bothering her and asked if we could talk. She said sure, just as soon as she sat up, which she did, a little off kilter. She threw back the covers. She wore stained sweatpants, a royal blue 2009 Super Bowl hoodie and a man’s forest green coat with a faux fur collar. She swung out one-and-a-half legs – the right leg was amputated to a sapling-slender tapered stump below the knee. Some bone disease with a long name took it, she explained when she saw me looking.
I told her my name, that I was a reporter, and why I was there – to talk with people about the topic of homelessness. She nodded.
“That’s cool,” she said.
She looked around and asked me to please excuse the mess. She ran her palms over her head and smiled – mostly gum – few teeth. The edges of her eyes fanned into crinkles.
“Bad hair day,” she said, pulling on a fleece camo hat.
Her name is Shannon. She calls this Redding hillside her home, and said she’s lived here on and off for 15 years. She pointed down the ravine and said oh yeah, she has a sister who lives down there, and a brother down there, and another brother down there. She said her “old man” Willy had gone to fetch some dinner.
“Heck, they’re all my brothers and sisters,” she said with a laugh.
Her smile sagged, and she asked what I wanted to know. I told her I had a million questions. She said go ahead, shoot.
We talked for more than an hour, until dusk. While she talked, she sometimes rubbed her leathery hands over her stump, or slid her long fingers up and down her arms beneath her sleeves, like someone applying body lotion.
Being homeless was not part of Shannon’s plan, she said. In fact, when Shannon was a little girl, she imagined she’d grow up to be a nurse.
“I wanted it all,” she said with a laugh. “Be a nurse, have a house, a car, everything.”
Shannon said she was a high school graduate, not a stupid person, and once “sort of had it all” – an apartment, kids, a man, the works, until her life fell apart because of a domestic violence situation that got her arrested and landed her in jail.
“I was defending myself and just kind of went into a rage,” Shannon said. She looked at her lap and shrugged her eyebrows and shoulders.
Asked about the extent of the domestic violence injuries, she said, “I was covered in bruises head to toe. He didn’t have a scratch on him.”
Shannon said after that, things went bad. Her grandparents, who’d raised her in Calistoga, died, and then her mother died, and that was pretty much it; no more family for Shannon.
Kids were born – starting when she was practically a kid herself, just a teenager. Now, Shannon’s kids are ages 7 to 14. When I mention that she’d lived out here for 15 years, she grinned.
“I said I was out here for 15 years – on and off.”
She went on to say her kids ended up living with their dad, who used to be homeless, but he isn’t now. In fact, one of her kids lives in Redding, which is why Shannon’s here, though “CPS isn’t wild” about the kids staying with their mother outdoors when they visit. Shannon said she can’t understand that mentality, after all, camping is good for kids, and they learn a lot about hunting for food and sleeping under the stars.
She pointed toward a bank of gray-and-white apartments nearby, where children’s yells spilled from open windows on this late afternoon – the last in January.
“I’ll tell ya, sometimes I think it’s easier to live outside here than live inside one of those,” she said. “People say we must be crazy to live outside, but I say put me in an apartment with walls and lots of people crammed in and screaming kids and that would make me crazy. Actually, I think I’ve been outside for so long now that I have a hard time being indoors, you know? Claustrophobia or something. Besides, people talk about what’s right for kids. What exactly is right? I think kids learn better in nature. Indians lived in nature here and that was all right.”
Shannon said that despite her love of the outdoors, she doesn’t love trying to keep her home intact, especially when the cops keep taking it apart, nor trying to scrounge up food and clothes, not to mention that all the primary homeless services – the Mission, Living Hope, etc. – are miles away, way down the hill in Redding – which almost sounds as if she may as well be talking about another city.
Moving closer to Redding’s center does not appeal to her, either.
“No way,” she said. “And live next to all those crazy idiots down there?”
Shannon said that she gets tired of collecting new stuff all the time – new sleeping bags, new blankets, new tents, only to have the police red-tag everything and haul it away. She points to a number Sharpied by police on the tent flap – and said that it’s insulting to be a “just a number”. Shannon said she understands that it’s illegal to stay here – on private property – but feels she has no choice.
“Shit, the hardest part about being homeless is keeping your stuff. Then, when we get ransacked and red-tagged, where are we supposed to go? It irritates me pretty bad,” she said.
“I get what – $740 a month on S.S.I.? It takes about all of that to stay at the Capri Motel for a month, and that’s the worst place in town. But first you have to get there, and that takes more money. I wouldn’t mind getting into a quiet apartment sometimes, but everybody wants deposits and first and last and all kinds of extras and then they ask for credit lines and do this and do that and fill out this and fill out that and it’s just impossible.”
Then, there’s the issue of keeping clean, which is also nearly impossible, she said, and then people tell the homeless to get a job.
“Yeah, right. Who’s going to hire someone who can’t get a shower?”
With a sigh, she stops. It’s quiet out here, except for the nearby RABA buses and traffic. Down a ways there’s an occasional rustling in the bushes, and a stray dog stops to growl in that direction, but nothing materializes.
Asked what it’s like to live here, day after day, night after night, especially when it’s cold, Shannon said it’s not as bad as you’d think.
Shannon said sometimes coyotes come by, and really, even on that night when it was down to something like – what,16 degrees – she has a 5-pound sleeping bag and a whole bunch of blankets, and when you get under the whole pile, you’d never guess it’s 16 degrees outside.
She said yet another hardest part about being homeless is being dirty, having no place to clean up or wash clothes, unless you go to the Mission or Living Hope, which starts her description all over again of the trek it takes to get there. Her eyes cloud up, but tears just balance on lower eyelids as she talks about people who judge people like her, and how she’s not the only one in this situation.
“You’d be surprised how many people live out here,” she said. “The cops came and took our stuff, but a lot of people were just hiding, waiting for them to leave. And we always come back, because really, where are we to go? But the cops come back, too. They always do.”
Asked if she were queen of the world, what would she suggest to help the homeless, Shannon sits up straight and barely pauses before reciting a list of wishes, starting with a dumpster, to put garbage in. But mainly, just give the homeless a chance, she says. And help the ones who have problems, like figure out if the problem that caused the homelessness is drugs or alcohol or depression or whatever, and then help them with it.
“If you really want homeless to succeed, you have to first help us figure out why we keep failing,” she said. “Everybody deserves a chance.”
But one of her biggest dreams, one she said she and her friends talk about all the time – one of their favorite topics – is if her fellow “brothers and sisters” could only pool their money – “lots of us are on S.S.I. or General Assistance or something” – and then they could buy this piece of land, not some remote BLM chunk that’s too far from everything. And on this land they’d allow people to camp if they wanted, or they’d have places to sleep indoors, for those who wanted to. There would be showers and food to eat without having to listen to a sermon. And washers and dryers and medical care. And nobody would judge anybody. And the cops would leave them alone.
“But I really don’t think that’s going to happen soon,” she said.
So, now what?
Shannon said she’ll keep doing what she’s doing. Sometimes she’ll hop in her wheelchair and roll to where the stores are – “I can wheel faster than most people can walk” – and she’ll hold a sign that asks for money, which some people don’t like – “but hey, free speech and all” – and mostly, she’ll just live one day at a time.
Shannon said that she and her homeless family will continue to rely on each other. She said that they will maintain their own system of order, where they divvy up the hillside sleeping quarters according to who’s who, such as some women sleep in one place where it’s safe, and the felons and sex offenders are forced to go way, way to the other side by themselves, nowhere near those apartments with so many little kids around.
They’ll help each other pitch tents, and if someone makes a Round Table run for pizza, they’ll always share it with everyone – no matter who they are – “white, black, blue, pink, green” – whatever.
“I get more love from the people who sleep in the woods with me than anywhere else,” she said. ” We take care of each other.”
Shannon said she’ll continue to feel grateful for the many people who help her, like those who work on the Hope Van, and those at Shasta Community Health Center, and even the “Bethel kids” – some of whom come from all over the world.
“Those Bethel kids give us food and say stuff like, ‘Don’t give up, keep praying to God’. Now, I don’t exactly know, of course. Maybe there’s a God and maybe there’s not. But I wonder sometimes, if there is a God, why would he let this happen?”
Dusk was setting in, and temperatures were dropping. Shannon squinted in the direction that her old man Willy had gone for McNuggets more than an hour earlier.
“You know, I’ve been here longer than anyone – almost 15 years. I was here before Tim got murdered with a chair leg, and I was here before Carol died over there,” Shannon said, tugging the big green coat around her.
“I guess you could say I’m kind of the senior person here.”
Shannon is 33 years old.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.